Interview with Norbert Trenkle
By Selçuk Salih Caydı
Published in Turkish in Medyascope, 22.8.2022
Russia’s war of aggression is a major topic of discussion in Turkey as well, but many people regard it as a defensive war on Russia’s part against the “evil West.” This narrative turns up on both the extreme right and the traditional left. How did that consensus come about?
When Putin rails against the “evil West” and so-called Western values, he’s positioning himself as a legitimate inheritor of traditional anti-imperialism. That’s why he is so popular on the right and the left and it’s why a lot of people in the Global South also identify with him and his war policy. Anti-imperialism was once linked with the fight against colonial and post-colonial domination. In that context, there’s no question that it was justified, because it was the Western powers that had divided the world among themselves and they dominated. And it was Western powers – above all the US – that ruthlessly asserted their interests even after the former colonies became independent states. Also, they often did it through war and by violently overthrowing inconvenient governments. So in the context of the Cold War, the Soviet Union seemed like a natural ally to national liberation movements, even if it was also pursuing its own imperial interests at the time. People were happy to overlook that because it was being done under the ideological auspices of “socialism” and emancipation.
But so-called actually existing socialism was never an emancipatory project. On the contrary, it was only ever a particular way of catching up with capitalist modernization, in which the state played a central role as a development agency. A lot of countries in the Global South also took a similar route after World War II and tried to make themselves independent of the capitalist centers. When those efforts failed almost everywhere in the 1970s and ‘80s and then the Soviet empire collapsed shortly thereafter, nationalism and religious fundamentalism increasingly moved to the foreground. They filled in the ideological gaps that “socialism” had left behind and became associated with anti-imperialism, which represented a kind of lowest common denominator among all political movements. To this day, that is precisely what Russia is able to build its wartime propaganda on. The Putin regime is extremely authoritarian and openly reactionary, yet it is still seen as an ally against the “Western powers.”
What is the effect of Putin’s characterization of “Westerners” as decadent and culturally degenerate while he, by contrast, invokes traditional values of “Russian culture” and Christian religion? Why does this narrative have so much charisma?
That’s the narrative of the “Decline of the West,” which is roughly as old as modern capitalism. Today it’s contextualized by a culturalization of social and political conflicts that started after the collapse of actually existing socialism. Instead of a competition between systems – which was only ever a competition between two different variants of capitalism – there has been talk since then of a clash of civilizations. However, this culturalistic narrative emerged in Europe in the 19th century, particularly in Germany, as a reaction to the generalized insecurity that unfettered capitalist dynamics produced and still produce. But instead of critiquing that dynamic and its negative effects – for instance the destruction of nature or mass impoverishment – it was redefined as “cultural decadence.” As a counter-image, people constructed visions of ostensibly ancient cultures or religions that were deeply rooted in a society and that need to be protected from impending degradation or revived. That’s the ideological terrain for all this world’s nationalist, ethnicist, and religious fundamentalisms. But what the fundamentalists overlook is that their “anti-Western” ideas are themselves imported from the West. And it is unintentionally ironic when, for instance, Hindu nationalists in India or the mullahs in Iran are adamant about their completely distinct cultural and religious identity while actually copying the culturalist model of invented traditions that emerged in Europe. Even if Putin positions himself today as the inheritor of the “Greater Russian Empire” that he wants to defend against “Western decadence,” he does so within the intellectual tradition of a reactionary anti-modernism that first came about with capitalism and then spread with it over the entire world. That’s why it makes sense that the Putin regime provides a tremendous amount of support for right-wing and far-right parties and movements, particularly in Europe and the US.
But why did Putin attack Ukraine? Isn’t Russian expansion also a reaction to the westward shift in the balance of global power and particularly to NATO’s eastward expansion?
I see the attack on Ukraine first and foremost as part of a global offensive on the part of authoritarianism and the political and religious right. The Putin regime is a model for pretty much every authoritarian ruler in the world. They see themselves as ascendant because the Western powers’ attempt to create a new world order under the banner of market economics and democracy has been a resounding failure. So it’s also incorrect to say that the war against Ukraine is a reaction to aggressive steps taken by NATO and the US. NATO’s eastward expansion ended in 2004. It hadn’t taken on any new members since then. Ukraine and Georgia were prevented from being accepted in 2008 not least of all by a veto from Merkel’s government. So when the Putin regime claims today that it had to in some way defend itself against a NATO attack, that’s pure propaganda. In fact, it’s about something else entirely. In his own words, Putin regards the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest disaster of the 20th century.” Let that sink in for a minute. In the bloodiest, most violent century in all of history to date, it’s the relatively peaceful end of the Soviet empire that was the worst thing that happened. That really says something about the thinking of Putin and the power elite that surrounds him, most of whom come from the secret service and security agencies. They experience the loss of their former position of global power as an extremely deep insult and so they’re driven by an irrepressible compulsion to recreate it at least on a rudimentary level. That’s not possible in practical terms, but the effort is creating enormous suffering, like now in Ukraine but also previously, for instance, in Syria.
But why attack Ukraine now? This insult you mentioned has been around for a long time by now.
In my opinion, there are three main reasons why the attack on Ukraine is happening now. The first is that Putin saw the West in a weakened geopolitical position, and the outright panicked withdrawal from Afghanistan last year seemed to confirm that. So he thought that the time was right and he was surprised by the Western powers’ severe and decisive response. The second is that Putin sees his position of power threatened economically, because it is based on exporting raw materials, particularly oil and gas. The impending switch to a renewable energy supply is a fundamental challenge to that. If he wants to achieve his imperial goals, he has to act while he still has that economic foundation. And the third reason is the tensions within Russia, which have been caused in no small part by the enormous social divide. Under these circumstances, a war of conquest – even we’re not supposed to call it that – is always a useful tool for rallying the populace. It triggers a nationalist wave and shows strength. It worked out well in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, so why shouldn’t it work again? At the moment, it seems as though Putin has militarily and politically miscalculated, but he has already set something in motion that can no longer be stopped just like that.
So Putin seems to be very afraid of losing power. But doesn’t he also have to fear a military defeat?
Of course a military defeat would be a disaster for Putin, because he wouldn’t survive it politically. So now he’s mobilizing all available means to prevent that and focusing on the goal of annexing all of Eastern Ukraine and creating a land corridor to Crimea. That’s a very realistic goal if we consider the scale of Russia’s military machinery. But it also means that the war is going to drag on longer and the populace is going to suffer more and more. But yes, fear of losing power was, as I mentioned, an important motivation for starting this war in the first place. The Putin regime, like any authoritarian regime, is constantly afraid that its own people could rebel. It has done everything in its power to suppress, intimidate, or drive the opposition out of the country, but the more hermetically sealed a regime is, the more paranoid it gets. That’s a characteristic of authoritarian regimes in general: they see conspiracies everywhere and keep carrying out new purges, which often sacrifice former allies.
In Russia’s case, there’s also the fear of “infection” from protest movements in neighboring states. That’s why Putin rushed to help the Belorussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko two years ago when he was in trouble. It’s also why he intervened so quickly in Kazakhstan when people were out in the streets there at the start of this year. But he sees Ukraine’s relatively vibrant civil society as a very particular threat because he denies Ukraine’s independence and regards it as part of “Greater Russia.” So he wants “order” there in keeping with his understanding of the term, which means eradicating everything that’s resistant. The fact that there are, for instance, relatively vibrant queer communities in Ukraine’s major cities is scandalous to Putin, because it’s a challenge to the binary gender hierarchy, which he regards as natural and God-given. In that sense, he is in agreement with all the world’s authoritarian and reactionary forces, regardless of whether they are Islamists, Christian fundamentalists, or fascists. They all feel that the core of their gender identities is threatened by the feminist and queer movements and they’re responding with a mixture of panic and violence.
You mentioned a global authoritarian offensive. Has democracy lost its appeal?
Every large protest movement around the world still invokes the values of democracy and freedom. Liberal democracy has never meant that society was really free to govern itself, given that it always assumed capitalist constraints, but it is obviously preferable to authoritarianism. Still, it can’t function without a modicum of social equality. But because modern capitalist production requires less and less labor due to high productivity and, at the same time, capital growth occurs primarily in financial markets, more and more people are being made “redundant” and are socially marginalized. They have few opportunities to assert their interests and aren’t politically represented anymore. That’s why authoritarian movements are gaining ground everywhere. They promise these people a minimum of social validation and construct collective identities by dividing the world into friend and enemy. By doing that, they’re able to position themselves as representatives of “the people,” meaning the great majority, and thereby democratically legitimize their claims to power. Most autocrats today act like they are defending democracy, even when they constantly trample on civil liberties and the rule of law and brazenly enrich themselves in private. The major drama is that the representatives of civil society who oppose authoritarianism can only oppose that political strategy to a limited extent because, even though they’re fighting for civil liberties, they don’t, as a rule, have any answers to burning social questions. So it’s easy to vilify them as representatives of a small, out-of-touch elite who are indifferent to so-called normal people. In many cases, that’s certainly subjectively untrue, but liberal democracy today is objectively more a global minority project than ever, given that it is unable to even begin to establish a social equilibrium in most countries. Because extreme social polarization is a product of the objectified dynamics of global crisis capitalism, it can’t be counteracted through liberal politics.
So is the authoritarian or Bonapartist formation of the Russian state under Putin an inevitable result of capitalism’s ongoing crisis? Can a state like that get the crisis under control?
This was not an inevitable development. There are other states that took different paths. It also depends on social power relations. In Russia, there was a strong security apparatus that reacted to the savage privatization and the crises of the 1990s. Putin was able to use it to put the oligarchs in their place and to put them to work for the state. He hasn’t hampered their business – anyone who doesn’t oppose the regime is allowed to continue amassing obscenely high profits. But that was a matter of stabilizing the economy and the infrastructure so that wages and pensions could go back to being paid on time and the vast majority of the people in Russia could more or less survive. Thus far, that has bought the Putin regime the broad consent of the populace. Even if not everyone adores him, at least a great many of them believe that there’s no better alternative. In that sense, you could definitely say that the Putin regime has found a temporary solution to the crisis within Russia. But that also has to be viewed in the context of the capitalist boom, particularly in the 2000s, which was produced to a very large extent by financialization and the ensuing growth in construction. At the time, people were even saying that Russia, along with China, Brazil, and India – the so-called BRIC states – was on its way to becoming an economic global power. But its relatively successful economy was essentially built on the fact that Russia became the world’s supplier of raw materials and energy, which is also the regime’s Achilles’ heel. If demand for those products collapses, the Russian economy will unravel. At the moment, Putin can still use Europe’s – and particularly Germany’s – dependency as a weapon, but that could end in a few years. Even if the shift in the energy supply doesn’t happen as quickly as Western governments are currently promising, they are looking for other suppliers – often in countries with governments that are no less authoritarian than Russia’s. But above all, the war could trigger a major global economic crisis that ultimately reduces the overall demand for energy.
But what happens if the economic basis for Russian authoritarianism breaks off? Could there be something like a post-capitalist authoritarian state that keeps Russian society together by force?
It’s hard to predict just how things might work out in Russia in a case like that. But if exports of raw materials break down or turn into a precarious economic foundation, capitalism won’t collapse in Russia. Instead, a new stage of crisis will emerge. Maybe intensified conflict will pick up again between various mafia factions grouped around the so-called oligarchs, who will fight bitterly for the social wealth that still exists. Right now, the Russian state is keeping those mafia factions in check – and, of course, state actors also enrich themselves in that process wherever and however they can. Maybe it’s strong enough to keep that up even in an economic crisis. But it will be much, much harder if the haul that can be divided between the gangs and the state keeps getting smaller and smaller. It may well be that the state would place itself between the two sides in that battle of interests, as it did in the 1990s.
At any rate, from a global perspective, that is the tendency everywhere that the economic foundation is eroding. When the economy becomes increasingly unstable, on one hand, the state is the only authority left that can ensure a certain degree of stability. And it does that by intervening in conflicts of interest and suppressing protests with blunt force. On the other hand, the state is not an authority that exists outside of society and that hovers over all these conflicts of interest. Its own actions are fundamentally influenced by social power relations. So it also always comes down to an internal degradation of the state apparatus. Then the state itself falls prey to a gang or several gangs that have to come to some kind of arrangement again. The details of how those arrangements work are very different from one country to the next. In general, each gang has to serve some kind of clientele in order to acquire a certain social foundation. One good example of that is Lebanon, where the state has been divided among socially distinct groups that each tend to their own supporters while they simultaneously plunder the public purse. That, of course, has nothing to do with post-capitalism. Capitalist forms all still exist and the goal of trade is still to augment money, even if that is now primarily achieved by criminal means. In that case, we can say there is a form of crisis-driven capitalism in decline.
Is it still possible to stop that process? How can we oppose authoritarianism and mafia-ization of the state if liberal democracy, as you said before, no longer offers any vision? Are there alternatives?
Liberal democracy, as I mentioned, is definitely still a better alternative to authoritarianism. But in bigger and bigger areas around the world, it no longer has any material basis, because liberal democracy can only function in places where most of society is needed to sell their labor for the valorization of capital and where most people feel that they have political representation. That is fundamentally the political form of a very particular historical phase of capitalism, specifically when it was still based on mass labor in production. That phase is irrevocably over and as a result the foundations of liberal democracy are going with it, even in the countries where it still more or less functions.
Today’s capitalism is, as I mentioned, less and less dependent on human labor and so it is making more and more people redundant in the pursuit of its objective, meaning the objective of multiplying money. But at the same time, it is taking up more and more resources and bigger and bigger areas of the world to keep itself running. Right now we’re seeing a new push to colonize the planet under the banner of an “ecological transformation” that is no such thing. Instead, it is only intended to secure a global minority’s production and consumption model for a few more years. Of course, it’s people in the Global South who will suffer the most as this progresses. Nonetheless, this is a universal trend. Social division, ecological destruction, and authoritarian tendencies go hand in hand everywhere. That’s why there also needs to be a global response that transcends capitalism. The problem is just that the conventional concepts of emancipation are all outdated, particularly those that still present the state as a knight in shining armor. They lead to the dead end of a kind of authoritarianism that is somehow regarded as left-wing, but that is no better than its right-wing sibling. Instead, we need a new prospect for emancipation beyond the market and the state.
And what might that kind of prospect look like?
I’m very sympathetic to the idea of commonism. The foundation of a society like that isn’t private property, but rather the commons, which don’t belong to anyone, but are used cooperatively by everyone. Of course, a completely different form of social relations goes along with that. The core of capitalist forms of relations is private property, which is based on enclosure and exclusion. Whatever belongs to me belongs exclusively to me and I can do whatever I want with it. That also implies that I am only socially acknowledged when I have access to private property, even if that is only through my labor. But that only gets me anything if I can sell it. In other words, private property is the foundation of a society in which social cohesion is created by means of the sale of commodities. Competition is universal because each person is pursuing their own private interests against everyone else’s. It’s completely different in a society based on commons. There, cooperation is the basic form of social relations. Social wealth is always produced and shared together with other people – and social wealth can be understood as something far broader than what it is in capitalist society, where wealth only counts if it can be expressed in money.
Isn’t that a really utopian idea?
I don’t think so. We find a very wide range of different forms of commoning – meaning the production of commons – in all social movements. That has been and still is often regarded as just a stopgap or, at any rate, a temporary form of relations that disappears again when a movement has asserted its interests and is recognized in the categories of the market and the state. That’s what happened, for instance, in the conventional labor movement. But where it is increasingly difficult to carve out that recognition, commoning takes on a completely different, central significance. It becomes the foundation for living and surviving together. We see that in a lot of social movements around the world. The main problem is just that they usually don’t have access to enough resources and social leeway to build a good, durable foundation for commoning. Most resources – particularly land – are already occupied by capital, meaning that they’ve been turned into private property. And that is bitterly defended, even if private use means that the planet continues to be destroyed. That’s why today’s fight for commoning resources could potentially represent the central social conflict line along which ecological over-exploitation can be stopped and along which the start of a new, liberated society could develop. But to date, those struggles, when viewed at a global scale, have been small or limited to social niches. So it’s a matter of linking them to other struggles, not least of them being the fight against authoritarianism and against all forms of social exclusion. Then the idea of commonism could, to use Marx’s language, become a material force.